Thursday, September 18, 2014

What I learned about apples


Lesson 1: There’s not much nightlife around Elkin NC.

Terra and I made a weekend getaway out of a Sunday afternoon event organized by the Piedmont Culinary Guild.  Through its parent organization, Slow Food Charlotte, the Guild members had connected with Lee Calhoun, a retired professor of agronomy and an star in the underground world of southern heritage apples.

Around the time he retired, Calhoun got interested in apples.  Old apples.  Old southern apples.  Wanting to include a few in the small orchard he was planning at his new home in Pittsboro, he followed a trail opened by a conversation with an elderly neighbor and leading through several states.  When all was said and done, he had tracked down over 350 varieties, grafting and planting them in a carefully maintained orchard of espaliered trees.  He had also published a book describing them all, appropriately titled Old Southern Apples.  Originally published in 1995, the newest edition in 2011 includes 50 additional apple varieties that had been rediscovered in the interim.

Enter the NC Historic Site of Horne Creek Farm, near Pilot mountain, in the foothills just below the VA state line.  The farm was looking for period-authentic apple varieties to add to its crops, and Calhoun was looking for someone to preserve and continue his work.  In 1997, their collaboration resulted in the planting of 800 trees on the site, two examples of each variety.

In 2014, Lee Calhoun spoke at a regional meeting of Slow Food, and the PCG members on hand were inspired to establish a connection between his historic orchard and chefs in Charlotte who support local agriculture.  A group of about 20 chefs, volunteers, writers and foodies signed up to make the two-hour drive north to pick apples for a special benefit dinner.

Lesson 2: The Yadkin Valley runs east-west, not north-south.


Since we hadn’t traveled at all during the summer, Terra and I felt it was high time for a mini-vacation.  We are not really familiar with the geography of our adopted state, but quickly ascertained that the orchard lay in the Yadkin Valley, a local cradle of hopefully up-and-coming viticulture.  Why not go up early, spend a few days, and see what else we could find in the small towns of the foothills?

Antique stores.  Lots and lots of antique stores.  Terra collected several heavy pounds of cast iron kitchenware, but I started to get fussy as she pondered a pot rack made from a chunky cart wheel.  Changing focus, we discovered the only really decent restaurant in town was a Thai place.  We ate there twice in two days.

On the other hand, nearby McRitchie winery and ciderworks, tucked just off Route 21 on a slight rise above a vine-studded slope, offered a cozy, pleasant tasting experience.  We met the owner, talked big-city traffic and tattoos, and left with a light buzz and a heavy box of drinks.

The next day, we explored Stone Mountain State Park, about 5 miles further down the road.  After running into a departing couple whose husband announced there were over 300 stairs to the bottom of the waterfall, we opted to go only partway down.  We did explore a second trail, and had a peaceful walk in the woods, helping to work off the fried food we’d ingested the night before at a semi-decent restaurant that was not Thai.

Lesson 3: If it’s not your own country, every country road looks the same.


Sunday morning we had a 40-minute drive from Elkin along deserted back roads that wound through forested slopes and rolling open fields, where we met up with the rest of our party, fresh from Charlotte. 

800 trees take up a surprisingly small place, when they are planted in orderly rows, half of them espaliered on wire trellises like the vines we’d seen at McRitchie’s.  Near a tiny shed, we gathered around Calhoun, site manager Lisa Turney, and resident horticulturalist Jason Bowen.  After a brief introduction by Turney, Calhoun expounded on the history and science of growing apple trees in North Carolina.

Lesson 4: Every fertilized apple seed is a hybrid.


While the original trees planted in North America grew from seeds sown on the shores of Virginia, today all known varieties of apple trees are grafted.  The blushing spring flowers can only be pollinated by a different type than the mother tree, so while the flesh of the resulting fruit is true to the tree which bears it, the seeds inside comprise the genetics of another variety.  In order to maintain a distinct line of apples, grafts must be made with twigs from the desired trees and separate root stocks.

Growing the root stocks is an entire industry of its own.  While the top half of the nascent apple tree is easily harvested from shoots off the mother, the roots are grown from the stumps of trees that have been unceremoniously cut down and covered with mulch.  These send out side shoots, which are harvested for their lower halves only.  The roots determine the size of the tree, and stocks exist to grant you versions sized like shoes, from 6’ espalier varieties to full-size 30’ shademakers.

Lesson 5: There are eaters, and there are keepers.


When we arrived in mid-September, half of the varieties had already fruited for the year.  The earliest apples mature in June, and different trees continue reaching ripeness all the way through October.  Most of the summer apples are bred to be consumed quickly, within a week or two of harvest.  Thin skinned and brightly flavored, they are the varieties best suited for out-of-hand eating.  Most are unfamiliar to the aisles of the grocery-store: Aunt Rachel, Hollow Log, Cotton Sweet.

Keepers are the late-season apples, with thicker skins that also tend toward bitterness.  According to Calhoun, you’re better off just peeling these, whether you’re cooking or eating them.  These are the apples developed for long storage, and I wasn’t surprised to hear familiar names like Winesap and Stayman, along with the evocative July-August-Go-No-Further.

Lesson 6: Apples don’t just grow on trees.


It’s the “just” in this lesson that’s important.  In spite of emerging within a southern climate, even these heirloom varieties require spraying against diseases and predators.  I’ll admit that when Bowen got into the details of 60- and 90-day pre-harvest intervals, my brain hit overload.  I did glean that spraying is determined by the time of blooming, fruiting and harvest, so that managing multiple applications to 800 trees on 400 different schedules is challengingly complex. 

If more consumers were aware of these details, I bet we’d get a lot more excited about apples.

After Bowen’s brief explanation of apple care, he turned to the orchard and began leading us from tree to tree.  Apparently part of the job involves having a map of the orchard implanted into one’s brain, because he hardly ever had to check the tags before announcing the name of the apple and describing everything from its flavor and texture to its best uses and vulnerability to disease.

Slow Food and PCG members gathered eagerly around each tree, reaching up to twist ripe fruit off the branches, extending bright orange picking baskets overhead, or jumping out of the way as falling apples pounded the ground at their feet.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that in spite of the gorgeous red or pink globes decorating each tree, much of the fruit was unusable.  Either it was not yet ripe, or the side turned turned away from us hid big dark spots of rot.  There was a lot of joking about how happy the deer would be with all the discarded fruit we left on the ground, and Turney assured us local hunters would be coming soon to buy them as bait.

Still, we were there to gather ingredients for a six-course dinner celebration of all things apple.  As some of the trees yielded only a few pounds of fruit, uneasiness bloomed about whether there would be enough.

Lesson 7: Apples are reliable.


Over on the visitors’ side of the farm site, there sits a small orchard of larger Virginia Beauties and some other unknown varieties, and we were invited to make up the difference there.  Not only did we fill a large bag for the dinner, but between that and the last gleanings of the main orchard, volunteers were able to purchase additional apples for their own use.  Everyone seemed happy with the day’s take.

Terra and I stayed with just a few other guests to tour the actual farmstead site.  Gazing out a window in the formal parlor of the Hauser family’s house, I recognized the simple wooden mullions holding the glass in place.  They were nearly identical to the ones in my childhood home, up in northeast Ohio.  With a shock I realized the two were built only 26 years apart, and I continued the tour with a sense of gratitude that my home had higher ceilings and had been renovated to create larger rooms (not to mention electricity and indoor plumbing).  Still, I empathized with the boys who were sent up to bed on the unheated second floor, since the only fireplace that was regularly lit was in the main living area.

At least they had two or three to a bed to keep warm.  I only had the dog.  

Lesson 8: Apples are worth celebrating.

As I write this, PCG and Slow Food Charlotte continue to publicize the upcoming apple dinner, and chefs fine-tune their ideas for each course.  The fruits we gathered will be baked, stuffed, sauced, souped, smoked, dried…in short, they will illustrate the extraordinary usefulness of this ubiquitous edible.  And add to the list of foods that make North Carolina a virtual ark of agriculture.